World / Pre-Broadway premiere Book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin Music By Matthew Sklar, Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
The Alliance Theatre (Atlanta)
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw Based on an original concept by Jack Viertel Music Direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell Orchestrations by Larry Hochman Vocal Arrangements by Matthew Sklar and Mary-Mitchell Campbell Music and Dance Arrangements by Glen Kelly Set Design by Scott Pask Costume Design by Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner Sound Design by Peter Hylenski Hair Design by Josh Marquette Associate Direction by Casey Hushion Associate Choreographer- John MacInnis Production Stage Manager- Holly R. Coombs
Ensemble: Mary Antonini, DeMarius R. Copes, Kevin Csolak, Shelby Finnie, Damon J. Gillespie, Sheldon Henry, Kate Marilley, Isabelle McCalla, Chris Medlin, Becca Peterson, Teddy Toye, Michelle West.
Reviewed Performance: 9/16/2016
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
I grew up in a small, very conservative, Texas town where football was worshipped. In my graduating class of over 500, there were very few Latinos. The majority of the school was white. I was also over 400lbs and in the closet. Feeling very fearful, scared, and so alone. To this day I don’t know why, but I went to my prom. I took a girl who was just a close friend of mine in Choir. Trying to find a tux to fit on a walking massive brown gum ball was a nightmare. But here’s the revelation, I was secretly seeing a popular Football player in the same high school. He was very paranoid, so we would meet late at night, or take off to San Antonio (an hour from my town) just to go to the movies, or dance clubs, etc. so no one would see us. Was he embarrassed to be seen with me? At prom he was with his girlfriend (yep, he had one). We could not even say hello to each other because he was so scared that our school mates would find out. During a slow dance, I saw him holding his girlfriend tightly, rocking back and forth romantically to the music. I felt my heart crack loudly and choked back tears. He never once looked at me. Graduation was the next month, and I never saw him again and left for college. So yeah, prom wasn’t that much fun, hell Carrie White had a better time at hers than I did!
Watching the new musical The Prom, all those memories flooded my mind throughout the evening. Needless to say I was wiping tears in the dark several times as the musical unfolded before me. The Prom is currently having its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta Georgia. It is bound for Broadway (if they can find a dang vacant theater on the Great White Way). The Alliance has a superb track record of their theatre mounting out of town tryouts for new musicals that move on to Broadway. This includes The Color Purple, Aida, Bring It On and Tuck Everlasting. It’s no wonder they won The Tony award for Regional Theater excellence (which is proudly displayed in a glass case in the theater).
Note: Following paragraph is taken directly from the press kit: In The Prom, Emma becomes an instant outcast and a national headline when her high school cancels the prom rather than let her attend with her girlfriend. Sensing a chance to correct an injustice and maybe get some good publicity along the way a group of fading celebrities takes up the cause, and invades Emma's small Indiana town. But their bumbling attempts at social activism make the situation far worse than they or Emma could have ever imagined. Cultures clash and the town erupts in chaos. The community's reputation, Emma's future, and the actors' careers all hang in the balance, until a true hero emerges to save the day. This new musical proves that standing up for yourself and inspiring others to accept their differences can make you the star you were always meant to be (end of press release paragraph).
In the creation of a musical, the book is the foundation that can either make the piece soar or sink the show like quicksand. For my personal taste, the best books are those that do not hit the audience’s head as if screaming, “Here comes a musical number!” But when a book has realistic emotion and allows a musical number to come out of nowhere, that’s when it works best. That is what Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin achieved here with The Prom. Their collaboration is one of the most original, invigorating, and sublime books that has been written for a new musical. Martin and Beguelin achieved the impossible here. They balanced equally the outlandish comedy and heart breaking, emotional drama that never felt forced or fake. The book is stuffed with so much rip roaring comedy like Kim Kardashian’s caboose! These two men formulated physical comedy, one line zingers, and the set ups for laughter with fantastic results. But what they constructed for the dramatic scenes will have you in tears. Martin and Beguelin do not go for the obvious, paint by number of setting up dramatic conflict. They bring out real, honest, and emotionally gripping scenes. Tackling a musical about two high school lesbians is a challenge most book writers would throw in the towel. How do you make that real so as not to offend their audience, or become so political in dealing with the real world topics of gay couples and gay love? They have done that here in ways that left me speechless and in awe. These two men built a mountain of comedy for Act I, so that they can explore and show the dramatic scenes with raw truth in Act II. Martin and Beguelin bring up the bible and homophobia, two topics that can make some audiences tense up and freeze with uneasiness. Instead, these two master craftsmen have written scenes that are so incredibly powerful that you could honestly sense audience members being touched by it. The book does NOT beat you over the head with their beliefs, but instead reveal the blunt truth with immense respect. Martin and Beguelin’s book for The Prom is that rare, once in a million years that does the impossible in the creation of musical theater. It balances comedy and drama equally; they take on very real, politically charged hot topics to create one of the finest books ever written for a musical.
Matthew Sklar’s score for The Prom is his best work ever. It’s a potpourri of musical genres that fit like a blooming corsage within the book. He has composed big, brassy Broadway belting songs, pop/dance club infused numbers, brassy big company numbers, and even an homage to Kander and Ebb for one number! The score is elevated even more thanks to Chad Beguelin’s magnificent lyrics. His lyrics have you howling in your seat, or wiping tears off your cheeks. Beguelin seals in character development and subtext with his lyrics, be it comedic or dramatic numbers. I have seen several out of town tryouts of new musicals, and you can see where the score and lyrics didn’t work, or have numbers that you know need to be cut. For The Prom, there isn’t a single number that feels lackluster or slows down the emotion and pace of the piece. They have a plethora of solos, duets, trios, and ensemble numbers that all serve great purpose, character development, and moves the plot with flawless results. There are so many dazzling numbers, but if I had to pick my personal favorites, those would include “Just Breathe”, “It’s Not About Me”, “Dance with You”, “The Acceptance Song”, “Tonight Belongs to You”, “Zazz”, “The Lady’s Improving”, “Love Thy Neighbor”, and “Unruly Heart”.
“Unruly Heart” is Sklar and Beguelin’s masterpiece. The score and lyrics intertwine so smoothly and with such truth that it punches you in the stomach. The song is sung by Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) and the teen ensemble. Instead of speaking on live television about what the High School and her fellow students did to her, Emma instead decides to post a song she wrote on Youtube from her bedroom. Sklar’s composition begins simple, then slowly builds with lush music. Beguelin’s lyrics come straight from the heart and soul of a gay teen simply asking for acceptance and kindness. Midway through the song, teens come from the wings to sing. They each reveal what part of the country they are from and how much Emma’s video touched them, because they feel the same way. The harmonies they sing are haunting. I must confess, I could not stop the tears that poured out from my eyes. There was an elderly couple sitting next to me, and I saw the wife reach over and softly hold her husband’s hand.
Normally when I see a new musical, I sometimes order the cast recording on Amazon, and at times I don’t. The score for The Prom had me looking everywhere in the lobby to purchase the cast recording right then and there! I hardly EVER feel that way when I leave the theater. This is a score that you will fall deeply in love with!
It seems that Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw has been given the golden touch. Because it seems that every show that he directs or choreographs (or both) become hits on Broadway that result in a sea of Tony awards and/or nominations. I just saw last season his latest hit, Something Rotten! He’s done The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, Spamalot, and The Drowsy Chaperone to name a few.
His direction and choreography for The Prom is spectacular in every way. He has some of the very best comedic stars from Broadway to mold and play with. He wisely allows them to be free to explore the comedy and create an evening of non-stop laughter. But he also handles the dramatic arc within the book with organic truth and realism. His staging and blocking fills the stage, never once showing pockets of dead space. It has purpose and reason. His choreography is AMAZING! The teen ensemble executes Nicholaw’s mash up of pop, jazz, and hip hop with superlative energy. They are all in unison so that every leap, arm, leg, and body contortion matches up like everyone else. The full company numbers are choreographed to pure good ole Broadway razzle dazzle. He even pays homage to the late great Bob Fosse in one number that was a show stopper. Nicholaw’s direction and choreography for The Prom is exceptional and a major triumph.
One of Nicholaw’s best assets is his ability to find great talent. Just look at his past musicals and see what I mean! For The Prom he has assembled an out of this world company to bring to life this story of two teens wanting to go to the prom
A round of loud applause must go to the teen ensemble. They nail the attitude and behavior of a typical teenager in Middle America. Be it a group of jocks, or a trio of bitchy cheerleaders, they stay true to the character and not once allow them to become cardboard replicas of cheesy acting. Their dancing is intoxicating! The choreography is TOUGH! Very intricate, specified movements that their bodies must transform with fluidity and must look, slick, polished, and clean. There are leaps in the air and in a split second they segue into jazz and hip hop. And their energy is mind boggling!
Within the supporting characters there are some very impressive performances: Such as Josh Lamon as Sheldon Saperstein, a press agent who has his hands full with divas; Martin Moran as Mr. Hawkins, the Principal who deeply cares for Emma, plus his never ending battle with the PTA and his community. He also is a huge fan of Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel), who slowly begins to fall in love with her. Finally there is Courtenay Collins as Mrs. Greene, the head of the PTA. She may dress very professionally, but she is extremely homophobic.
There are also two stand outs within the ensemble that deserve special recognition. Josh Franklin provides some hearty laughs as the Motel Clerk where our stars have to stay in, but he also is very funny as one of the cast members of Godspell (I’ll explain that later). Speaking of the Godspell cast, Kevin Csolak is a comedic riot as the soloist dancer at a certain rally led by Trent Oliver (Christopher Sieber). I cannot spoil what Csolak wears at the rally, but the audience lost it! Csolak danced with loads of energy, but his facial expressions where priceless! He was purrrrfect in this production number.
Caitlin Kinnunen as Emma and Anna Grace Barlow as Alyssa are the two girls who love each other and just want to go to the prom together. Both are physically beautiful girls and it was very respectful that they did not stereotype their characters whatsoever. They made them so real and honest. Their chemistry was loving and very touching. They sing a very stunning ballad titled “Dance With You” that just made your heart sigh. They are surrounded with bigger than life characters, but they are the two that bring the heart, the love, and the realism that grounds the piece wonderfully. Kinnunen also leads the teen ensemble in the aforementioned musical number “Untruly Heart” that is so exquisite and moving. How lucky are Kinnunen and Barlow in originating these roles. It is very rare in musical theater that the two gay leads are women. Most are led by men, such as La Cage Aux Follies, Falsettos, A New Brain, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Sure there are supporting female roles in Falsettos who are gay. But in The Prom this is first a musical (to my knowledge) that has been created for two females. And these two extremely talented girls succeed!
Angie Schworer has a laundry list of Broadway credits; I just saw her last season in Something Rotten! at the St. James Theatre. She is a true Broadway gypsy. For The Prom Schworer portrays Angie, a Broadway gypsy who has been in the cast of Chicago forever. This is quite funny since she has actually done the Kander and Ebb hit on Broadway. Schworer is tall and lithe, a va-va-voom showgirl with legs that would make men empty their bank accounts and lay mountains of cash and jewels at her feet. She puts the “S” in sex appeal. She is blonde, but it was so refreshing that Schworer made a character choice not to play her dumb or have a high pitch voice. Instead she gave the character a strong, sturdy back and personality of a woman who has paid her dues as a gypsy on the great white way. Schworer has a show stopping number titled “Zazz”. A terrific number she sings to Emma about getting back on her feet and Jazz it up like Bob Fosse would. With Nicholaw’s choreography (which is very Fosse like), Schworer flawlessly executes the iconic Fosse movements. With those gams the girl sells the number which was met with huge applause and cheers. She also had one of the best lines before the song. She nailed the comedic beat, said the line- and had to stay in character as the audience erupted into deafening laughter that would not subside!
Nicholaw has brought three of Broadway’s best to Atlanta to bring this musical to life. Talk about a trio of dream principals, each has earned Tony Award nominations (and one who won)! They are the crème de la crème of Broadway royalty: Brooks Ashmanskas, Christopher Sieber, and Beth Leavel.
I had the delicious pleasure to catch Ashmanskas as Brother Jeremiah in the original Broadway production of Something Rotten! For The Prom he portrays Barry Glickman. A flamboyant gay leading man on Broadway. Ashmanskas creation of Barry makes RuPaul and Liberace look butch! Now normally the stereotyping of this character usually angers me. I hate to see gay men played so nellie. But because of this first rate book, it allows Ashmanskas to give various emotions and sheathe him with honesty and compassion. His character arc is so strong that he can go from outlandish queen, to a real man who reveals he hasn’t spoken to his mother in years. Talk about holding back the tears.
We first meet Barry and his constant co-star Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel) at their Broadway opening night of the new musical Eleanor! A musical that has Dee Dee playing Eleanor Roosevelt while Barry is Franklin D. Roosevelt. The show flops thanks to a deathly review from the New York Times. They need to change their image as egotistic divas of Broadway and show the public they do care! Once they find their cause (helping Emma go to the prom), it speaks to the very heart of Barry. Ashmanskas is hysterical as Barry. From his facial expressions to his technique of comedic timing, pace, and delivery it is all sheer perfection. He wrings out every laugh he can squeeze out from the book. He has several company numbers, but has his own number titled “The Prom” that is phenomenal! Ashmanskas gives Barry such great affection for Emma, as her own complicated, difficult life mirrors his. When it is time to speak from the heart, Ashmanskas gives his characterization such love, dignity, and truth that speaks volumes. His comedic tornado of a performance is a huge reason why to see The Prom.
I have been a major fan of Christopher Sieber since I saw him on Broadway in Beauty and the Beast as Gaston. On Broadway I have so greatly enjoyed his work in Into the Woods and Thoroughly Modern Millie. But my two personal all-time favorite Sieber performances was in the original cast of Broadway’s Spamalot as Sir Galahad (which earned him a Tony nomination) and in the national tour of La Cage Aux Follies as Zaza. To do The Prom, Sieber left the Broadway Company of Matilda The Musical where he played the role of Miss Trunchbull for two years. In The Prom Sieber is Trent Oliver, an out of work actor who at the drop of a hat tells anyone he studied at Julliard. He is a waiter at the Eleanor opening night party where he sees his old friends Dee Dee and Barry (the three of them first met in a flop years before). Trent is about to hit the road in a non-equity tour of Godspell (playing Jesus). Once again Sieber brings that tour de force comedic talent he possesses to his character. His resplendent talent in the art of comedy is so incredible, that you just have to sit back and savor it. His ability to take a simple line and with just the right timing and facial expression, he has the audience guffawing loudly. He is a percolating explosion of comedic timing, pace, and delivery. He matches that up with hilarious facial expressions that have the audience rolling in the aisles in laughter.
Sieber has two major show stopping numbers, “The Acceptance Song” and “Love Thy Neighbor”. In both of those numbers Sieber leads the full company with his electrifying stage presence and talent. Once again thanks to the book, Sieber has a very dramatic scene in Act II confronting the parents, students, and PTA. Sieber speaks from Trent’s inner soul that makes that scene so powerful. Sieber once again displays with his scene stealing performance and powerhouse of talent why he is one of Broadway’s most sought after actors!
Director Nicholaw calls Beth “Dame Leavel”, a title that befits her like a sparkling tiara. My first time to experience the superior talents of Beth Leavel was when she was in the original Broadway production of Crazy for You. I would again get to marvel at her talents in The Drowsy Chaperone, which earned her a Tony award. Today she is in an elite group of Broadway’s finest leading ladies. For The Prom she has struck precious gold for a second time from the world of Casey Nicholaw and Bob Martin. They (along with Beguelin) have created a role that displays new and incredible shades of talent within Leavel that we have never seen before. Here she shows that she is indeed a true chameleon. In The Prom she is Dee Dee Allen, a two time Tony award winning diva….of flops! In her first scene at the opening night party of Eleanor she tells a reporter that she had no idea who Eleanor was until she googled her. From her first scene to the last, Leavel steals the show. You want to see a master at the peak of their artistic creativity, then see Leavel in The Prom. Those facial expressions. She never once drops character. The reactions and inner dialogue that flash across her face will have you clutching your sides from laughing so hard.
On Broadway today there are so few leading women that can comprehend, breathe, eat, and drink the art of comedy. She understands the finesse of knowing comedic subtext as well as timing, pace, and delivery. Not many leading ladies have that rare talent- But Ms. Leavel does. All that talent is wrapped in blinding, hypnotic stage presence that never dims. All evening long she had to hold for what had to be an eternity as the audience generated uproarious laughter. Her lines are like comic bon-bons that Leavel relished in unwrapping them in front of the audience. Her musical numbers were not just show stoppers, but each one went further vocally than the number before! Beguelin’s lyrics in Leavel’s numbers provided humongous laughs. Such as the musical number “It’s Not About Me” and the great 11:00 O’clock number “The Lady’s Improving”. In the latter, with a set of lungs no mere mortal has, Leavel sings this number, which was from her first flop. It’s a massive belting number. Leavel holds that big boisterous note to the very end. When she finishes the roof of the Alliance theatre almost came crushing down due to the audience screaming, cheering, and applauding so hard that their hands bled! As if that wasn’t enough, Leavel as Dee Dee reacts to that big note in a way that had me almost wetting my pants! This is Beth Leavel’s world, and we are indeed lucky to be in it! This is a performance that will be remembered for a lifetime. If and when this musical makes it to Broadway, Leavel will earn her second Tony Award! I predict that right now!
It should be noted that Leavel, Sieber, and Ashmanskas are close real life friends off stage as well. They have all worked with Casey Nicholaw as well. So the chemistry between the three of them on stage is very real and they play off each other like the comedic pros that they are. To have these three geniuses of comedy on stage at the same time, well talk about a musical theater fan’s dream come true. Along with Leavel, I can easily state that Sieber and Ashmanskas would also earn Tony awards. Yes, they are that damn good in this show!
Because of the intense, never ending media blitz focusing on Hamilton the musical last season (even before they opened), several out of town musicals that received great reviews decided not to open on Broadway last season. I don’t blame them, who wants to battle against Hamilton on Tony award night? But now these same new musicals are battling each other for the few vacant theaters that are available on Broadway. As one show is closing there are at least three or four new musicals clamoring to snatch up that empty theater. Alas The Prom: The Musical is waiting to see if they can get hold of some of that precious rare real estate on the great white way.
I sincerely and greatly hope that the producers take The Prom to Broadway NOW! And here’s why:
Accepting people who are gay in today’s world has been one of the greatest battles that has been fought. Look how long it took to make gay marriage legal! But we have come so far since I was in high school. But still hatred rears its ugly head, as the tragedy in Orlando Florida showed us. It was the Broadway community that immediately reached out to help Orlando. Also remember what they did on the Tony Awards telecast just a few days after the tragedy. We still have a high volume of innocent gay teens committing suicide because they are bullied or feel alone. We need positive, loving beacons of acceptance. One of the best ways to achieve this is in our art, like theater. This musical could have easily slipped into slapstick, way over the top sitcom-ish hammy show with no message. But The Prom is NONE of that. Yes, it is so freaking hysterical that your face and sides will hurt from laughing nonstop for two hours. But the powerful message it displays is so desperately needed right now. I can imagine so many teens and their parents seeing this musical and understand finally the truth and honesty of people who just want to be loved and to love. To find acceptance. That is what The Prom: The musical achieves here. That is something that this world and us could really use right now.
THE PROM: A NEW MUSICAL The Alliance Theatre, Atlanta Georgia Through September 25, 2016
Tickets start at $20 and are available at the Woodruff Arts Center Box Office in person or by calling 404-733-5000. Tickets are also available online at www.alliancetheatre.org/theprom
The Alliance Theatre is located at the Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree Street, NE, Atlanta, GA 30309, at the corner of Peachtree and 15th Street, in Midtown.
GROUP DISCOUNTS: Groups of 10+ receive discounts on the price of tickets and are not charged for box office fees. 404.733.4690
MILITARY DISCOUNTS: The Alliance thanks military families with 15% off regularly priced tickets to Alliance Stage and Hertz Stage productions. Military ID must be shown when picking up or ordering tickets at the Box Office. This offer is based on availability and cannot be combined with other offers.
$10 TEEN TICKETS: Any middle school or high school student can attend any performance for just $10.Look for the teen price when selecting your seats online. A valid/current student ID must be presented when picking up tickets at will call. Not all seating sections are available with this offer. A maximum of 4 tickets per order may be purchased with this discount.